As the novel coronavirus (a.k.a. Covid-19) spreads, plenty of exploitative scheming and misinformation has proliferated online — but the internet has also become a crucial tool for sharing important, legitimate facts about the outbreak, including scientific info, travel updates, and news on the death toll and spread.
Naturally, there have also been plenty of memes. But due to a combination of unprepared governments, delays in testing for the coronavirus, xenophobia, and general public confusion, meme-makers are treating the threat a little less flippantly than they did during other global scares of the recent past. So far, viral goofs about the coronavirus have contained strong messages on everything from racism and wearing surgical masks to the risks of touching your face and shaking people’s hands. Above all, they sound a frequent chorus about the importance of maintaining good hygiene and preventive health behaviors.
Unlike the bout of ”World War 3” memes that emerged in January amid fears about tensions between the US and Iran, coronavirus memes have largely been devoid of alarmism, ironic or otherwise. They’re often straightforwardly informational, using humor that’s positive in tone. The overarching theme of the memes is that, even amid a worldwide health crisis, it’s possible to properly prepare and take health precautions — a unique and encouraging contrast from the usual tack of the sardonic jokester internet.
Coronavirus memes are mostly promoting correct information and healthy alternative behaviors
Many coronavirus memes are doing their part to quash misinformation. Despite persistent media coverage explaining that wearing a face mask isn’t necessary if you’re not already sick or treating someone who is, many people have nonetheless purchased masks — causing shortages in places where they’re needed, like hospitals.
Consequently, several memes have emphasized that the most effective precautionary behavior is practicing good hand hygiene and staying away from other people if you’re sick.
Among some Asian cultures, masks have historical significance and are often worn as routine etiquette. Americans have frequently misunderstood the cultural purpose of such masks, and because the coronavirus originated in China, the outbreak has stoked an accompanying climate of anti-Asian hostility, with many people assuming incorrectly that people wearing masks in public must be sick. Messages downplaying these xenophobic beliefs have come in a variety of formats, from viral comics to cross-stitches; on social media, governmental organizations and public figures instructing people to wash their hands and “stop buying masks.”
The award for most creative coronavirus PSA undoubtedly goes to the Vietnamese officials who took the popular 2017 pop song “Ghen” and evolved it into a catchy informative music video, titled “Gen Cho Vy,” a pun on “coronavirus”:
“Ghen Co Vy” has become so popular, it spawned a whole TikTok dance challenge, thanks to popular Vietnamese dancer Quang Dang, who choreographed it with a few hand-washing dance moves built in:
Other memes have promoted adopting other preventive routines during the outbreak — particularly greeting alternatives to hand-shaking, for the very good reason that hand-to-hand contact is one of the most common ways viruses are transmitted. The urge to minimize shaking hands has led to lots of proposed alternatives, most notably the elbow bump, as demonstrated in this official UN TikTok video:
The concept of greeting people without touching them has since become a meme all its own.
One variant, the “Wuhan Shake,” is a viral form of ankle-bumping.
People in China found another way to greet since they can’t shake hands.
The Wuhan Shake.
I love how people can adapt and keep a sense of humor about stressful situations. pic.twitter.com/P8MSfOdJ2H
— •*¨*•.¸¸✯*･ Ꮙ •*¨*•.¸¸✯*¨ (@V_actually) February 29, 2020
Many Star Trek fans have been ready for this moment for decades, as evidenced by the popularity of one greeting meme in particular:
I hate to say this – I’m not much of a germophobe myself – but we might want to work on a personal greeting that doesn’t involve physical contact. pic.twitter.com/GTCgTBZENX
— Andrew Yang (@AndrewYang) March 2, 2020
And anyone who’s not with these hygiene ideas will be duly shamed. That includes you, “Sweet Caroline” fans!
NEIL DIAMOND: touching hands
CDC: no don’t touch hands
NEIL DIAMOND: reaching out
CDC: please avoid that
NEIL DIAMOND: TOUCHING YOU-
CDC: everyone is Boston is doomed
— actioncookbook (@actioncookbook) February 28, 2020
What’s great about so much of this viral message-spreading is that it’s warm, upbeat, lively, and entertaining. Fun elbow-bump memes are a far cry from the global panic we’ve all been conditioned to expect from years of apocalyptic outbreak scenarios depicted in movies and on TV.
Of course, the recommended behavioral changes aren’t always easy to follow, especially when it comes to one in particular: face-touching.
No one can stop touching their face, but memes are helping us try
One of the most frequently recommended health tips to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus is to avoid touching your face. But as this widely shared clip from the 2010 outbreak movie Contagion reminds us, that’s almost impossible to do:
If you’re one of the people who struggle to reduce your face-touching, you’re not alone:
Perhaps frequent meme reminders can help keep our hands away:
But the most prominent theme yet is where coronavirus memes are doing their best work.
Hand-washing may already be the meme of the year
Could the basic act of hand-washing itself be a meme? Jokes about the importance of hand-washing to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus are already among the year’s best:
Protect yourselves from Coronavirus with this easy acronym:
C lean your hands
O pen hands and clean them
R emove germs from hands
O pen hands etc as above
A nd tidy hands
V erify hands are clean
I s your hands clean?
R emove hand germs
U ndirt your hands
S tay clean handed
— Todd ‘Papi’ Carlos (@TheToddWilliams) February 28, 2020
Among the more popular hand-washing meme variants are the ones that remind people how to clean up like Lady Macbeth:
Wash your hands like you convinced your husband to murder the rightful king and you can’t get the blood off.
— M (@MelanieMoore) February 28, 2020
Even Shakespearean acting troupes have gotten in on the Macbeth gag, while also spreading helpful hand-washing instructions:
A more recent, less bloodthirsty inspiration to head to the sink involves Eric, a popular character from Netflix’s Sex Education:
The image of the actor who plays Eric, Ncuti Gatwa, reminding people to wash their hands has even found its way into schools:
Among the most popular musical flavors of the hand-washing meme are suggestions for songs to sing to make sure wash your hands for the amount of time health experts recommend — a whole 20 seconds.
You’re supposed to wash your hands for 20 sec, which is the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice. But I’m tired of singing Happy Birthday and you probably are too, so I’ve done the very important public service of compiling other songs with roughly 20 sec choruses to sing:
— Jen Monnier (@JenMonnier) March 2, 2020
It’s gonna take a lot to wash germs away from you
It’s something that a fifth of a hundred seconds could do
I bless the sink down in my bathroom
Gonna take some time to do the things we need to do (ooh, ooh)
— Shayla Bradley (@shaylariane) March 2, 2020
There’s even a lyrics generator for better hand-washing.
It’s perhaps a sign of the strange times we’re in that these coronavirus memes have skewed toward the positive when they could have easily gone in a more dire direction. World War 3 jokes, for example, traded in heavy irony, while memes about the 2014 Ebola outbreak were largely dominated by 4chan users sharing damaging, racist “jokes” about death and conspiracy theories. By stark contrast, coronavirus memes have generally emphasized behavioral changes and information-sharing (while also lamenting how hard it is to stop touching your face). Instead of spreading the message that we’re all going to get sick and die, coronavirus memes are downright reasonable, even borderline cheerful.
The coronavirus is a serious threat, of course. But instead of merely using humor to cope, a memetic focus on prevention methods has provided welcome bits of levity — and important information — during a growing crisis.